The Chieftains, from left, Matt Molloy, Paddy Moloney, Kevin Conneff, Sean Keane, Derek Bell (in front) and Martin Fay.
The Chieftains, from left, Matt Molloy, Paddy Moloney, Kevin Conneff, Sean Keane, Derek Bell (in front) and Martin Fay.

Emerald Guile

The problem isn't what to say about Ireland's remarkable Chieftains, it's where to begin. And, as Paddy Moloney might say, when in doubt, one simply begins at the beginning.

In 1963, piper Moloney, late of the traditionalist folk group Ceoltóiri Cualann, recruited a band of fellow musicians in order to preserve and explore the rhythms and melodies of Irish folk music, played on the traditional folk instruments. Prior to the mid-1960s, the world's dominant perception of Irish folk music was based on groups like the Irish Rovers or the Clancy Brothers -- contemporary Kingston Trio-style topical songs, with the occasional bawd or boozer thrown in. The band Moloney assembled, by contrast, was something of a folk music supergroup. Among their ranks, the Chieftains numbered many of the top folk players in Ireland, and when they sat down to perform -- often using no more than pipes, fiddles, the bodhrán (a hand-held framedrum) and whistles -- the most unbelievable tones emerged from their coalition, the very sound and soul of Ireland's deep musical history.

After two records, and during a crisis point in contemporary folk in 1970, the Chieftains reached something of a fork in the road. "We had, oh, all manner of record companies approach us with all kinds of ideas, y'know, 'If you'd just put a couple of guitars into the band,' and all that." Moloney considers this for a moment, 30 years later. "It might have become something else, it might even have been something wonderful," he continues, "but it didn't suit us, certainly, at the time. We had the opportunity to be rock stars." From within his ample laughter, he manages one more word: "Imagine!"

Imagine: 39 years, 36 albums, six Grammys, 18 Grammy nominations including one this year for 2000's Water From the Well, and one Oscar (Best Film Score for Stanley Kubrick's 1975 Barry Lyndon). Following their decision in 1970 to remain a semi-professional, part-time band rather than modernize the sound they were developing, the Chieftains earned a reputation that brought stardom to them nonetheless. And finally, of course, the Chieftains went pro.

"Perhaps that's one of the reasons we get such respect from actual rock musicians," Moloney says thoughtfully. "Sticking to the folk music the way we did, early on. Now, you could certainly say, 'Oh, come off it now, traditional? What're you doing recording with the Rolling Stones?' But Long Black Veil, the album where they guested . . . it's a lovely song, that. And they gave such a beautiful interpretation."

Moloney's referring to the past five years of the Chieftains' recorded work, give or take, a half-decade during which it seemed every musician in the world was lining up to collaborate with them. 1995's Long Black Veil was the first crossover project, featuring guest performances by the Stones, Sinéad O'Connor, Ry Cooder, Sting, Marianne Faithfull and Van Morrison (on the Grammy-winning "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?"). In 1996, the gorgeous Santiago -- a band favorite -- featured Los Lobos, Linda Ronstadt and classical guitarist Eliot Fisk on a journey through Celtic music's connections with the music of Spain, Portugal and Cuba. On 1998's Fire in the Kitchen, they recruited and spotlighted some of the best young performers from Canada's Celtic music scene. 1999's Tears of Stone, a follow-up to Long Black Veil, boasted a staggering roster of women vocalists including Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Loreena McKennitt, Natalie Merchant and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Water From the Well, released last year, is a similarly collaborative project, but this time the Chieftains returned home to find the sounds they wanted. "No real 'star' names on this one," says Moloney; but a hefty collection of Irish musicians showed up to lend them a hand, "and these fellows are the Charlie Parkers, the Miles Davises of traditional music and song."

At its heart, Water From the Well is an audio tour of contemporary Irish folk, as performed in various locations and regions throughout the country. Of the several dozen conceptual ideas for their most recent release, oddly, this particular project was scheduled to appear a bit farther down the line. "In fact," Moloney reports, "it wasn't intended to come out this early at all. It was just an idea I'd had; but on account of the millennium and all, we thought maybe it'd be nice to take a little ramble around Ireland, and hear what was happening.

"See, one of the beautiful things about the music on this wonderful island we've got, you go 40 miles down the road, and you'll hear the same tune played just a bit different. I was at my niece's wedding just after Christmas this year, and at the reception, y'know, it's usually keyboards and saxophones. But at my niece's wedding, it was bodhráns and pipes, fiddles and flutes. And it was young people, right? Young people, not the old ones, so you see our worry among the older set about traditional music dying out, it hasn't happened. It's the younger ones now taking it up. And I'm happy to think we contributed a bit to that."

They contributed more than a bit, of course, because in addition to being yeoman musicians, the Chieftains are utter workhorses, whose intense recording and performing schedule over the past 40 years would deplete the reserves of men half their ages. The road show in support of Water From the Well is a similarly boisterous affair, and Moloney's words trip and tumble over one another as he gleefully fails to fit it all into a single description.

"I think we're going to have an interesting little program for you," he says impishly. "We'll have a few special guests, the lovely Joan Osborne will be there, we've performed with her now for a couple of years, and she's going to give us her interpretation of 'Foggy Dew,' which we first performed with Sinéad O'Connor a while back [on Long Black Veil]. And then of course the beautiful Natalie MacMaster is going to be onstage with us, what a doll; seven years ago she first guested with us. We're going to have an Irish flamenco guitar player, if you can believe that, and dancing we'll feature very much, as always; the full complement! We're even going to have some of your local people come up and join us for some music and dancing. You see, this is the real thing! Not that Riverdance business!"

(Don't read any undue venom into that last comment; Michael Flatley, the Lord of the Dance himself, is a friend of the band who began his career dancing in the Chieftains' live show. But Moloney, who is self-effacing and charming beyond the telling, can't resist poking fun at himself and his mates, despite the awe they seem to induce in their fellow musicians. For example: "BMG [the Chieftains' label since 1989], I like to say they're devils for punishment. You'd think by now they'd be saying, 'All right, boys, it's been fun, but you're looking a bit ragged.' But they just signed us on for another five albums, lucky for us." And us as well.)

"About, I'd say, 60 percent of the music in the show will come from Water From the Well. Oh, and we'll have to do some from Santiago, we couldn't get away without doing that." Nearly four decades on, it's evident that the Chieftains still savor the thrill of live performance: "The most challenging part of it all, and the most joyful, is going onstage. You never take an audience for granted." Moloney is happy to say that, with the exception of a single event, the Chieftains have unfailingly netted an enthusiastic reception wherever they've performed. (The sole blot on an otherwise spotless record occurred at some long-ago corporate dinner -- a performance whose captive audience, Moloney dryly reports, was composed mostly of "yuppers.") "We went right onstage almost immediately after this album, and to hear people say, 'Three years ago, that was the best I'd ever heard you guys do, but this is better than that' -- when you hear that, it's very encouraging. And it's nothing to do with rehearsing. It's a mental thing, blending, listening, letting each man come forward as it takes him and getting in the right mind."

The infectious spirit of that enthusiasm lifts Water From the Well into joyous heights; on a few tracks you can actually hear the band members shout happily and egg each other on as they play. "I even had to reduce those in the mix," admits Moloney a bit sheepishly (Moloney has produced every Chieftains album, from their very first recording in 1965 straight through to Water). But in a way, they're the most delightful moments on the record. That a group of players can take this much pleasure in the sheer act of making music together, after four decades -- that's a frankly remarkable thing to hear. "To do the whole thing," Moloney finishes firmly, "was a joy."

Assembled over 10 days in various spots throughout "this beautiful island," as Maloney frequently phrases it, the tapes that became Water From the Well went with him to Massachusetts, where his son was graduating from MIT with a degree in rocket science ("The first Irish rocket scientist!" he jokes proudly). The final mix was accomplished in Boston over three weeks.

"There's never any great masterpiece intended . . . I suppose if there was, we'd take more than 10 days to do it in, but that's the way we've always worked it." Intentions aside, the Chieftains have received their 18th Grammy nomination on the strength of Water, in the category of "World Music," a term Paddy Moloney, for one, finds a bit frustrating.

"It pigeonholes the music, not that there isn't wonderful music coming out under that term. Peter Gabriel's doing great work, for example, promoting it. But we've been doing this kind of thing all our lives; it's just where they put us this year, I suppose. [The Chieftains have in fact been nominated, and won, in several different categories throughout their career.] We worked with Indian musicians in the 1960s in London, performing live, but we weren't allowed to record it, of course. One just didn't do that in those days, you see. But 'World Music' puts a certain kind of music in a special slot of its own. A lot of other things, more local things, get lost. I think it should actually be 'Great Music From Around the World.' And it's thousands of years old; I recently read where they've discovered pipes made from human bones, made thousands of years ago, d'you know that? That's folk music, that's it! Do you know there are Japanese pipe bands? There's a Japanese band that plays the pipes, wears Irish kilts. They follow us around sometimes, it's fantastic. A lot of that kind of stuff, it falls through the cracks."

In the service of rescuing that music and keeping their own performance spontaneous, Moloney relays a special request.

"We want to bring some of your own musicians up with us during the show. Now, make sure you tell your local musicians, anyone who plays Celtic folk music, to come down to the venue [Scottsdale Center for the Arts] for the sound check. Tell them to come down to the venue and bring their instruments and we'll get it all sorted out beforehand. Can you do that?" Done. "Wonderful! Oh, that's great! Oh, we're looking forward to it."

Looking forward through the past; if it's not the Chieftains' only gift, it may well be their most extraordinary one.

The Chieftains are scheduled to perform two shows on Tuesday, January 23, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, with Joan Osborne, and Natalie MacMaster. Showtimes are 5 and 8 p.m.


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